Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, will be joined by fellow leaders Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and newly-elected Mauricio Funes of El Salvador at the Summit of the Americas this weekend. The left-leaning brigade will head to the Trinidad forum with significant clout, which will likely assist Correa’s prospects in Ecuador’s upcoming elections. The outcome of the Ecuadorian presidential and legislative elections, set to take place on April 26, will most likely determine whether Latin America’s left-leaning political shift will prevail in the Andean region, or if it was just an ephemeral initiative now destined to burn off. The incumbent quasi-populist leader, Rafael Correa, is expected to be reelected by an even larger margin due to his widespread social and economic reforms.
The effective restructuring of his country’s political workings and quality of rule, in general, has been well received. Even though the approval of the new constitution in September 2008 created opportunities for various openings for change in Ecuador, the political and economic climate in the small Andean nation remains tense, even by Latin American standards. Running against the popular current leader of Ecuador are no strangers to the battle for presidency. They include ousted ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez, and Alvaro Noboa, currently on his fourth bid for the presidency.
Past Presidential Punch-out
During the period leading up to the second round run-off, both candidates resorted to bombastic attacks against the opposing person. Noboa, considered to be Ecuador’s richest national, resorted to a series of diatribes aimed at Correa, many of which attempted to portray his opponent as a puppet of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. “They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo,” contended Correa. Much to the dismay of left-leaning Latin American leaders, the magnate even went so far as to accuse Chávez of covertly funding Correa’s campaign.
Indeed, Chávez and Correa share a tight bond, but after having suffered humbling losses while attempting to aid political movements in Mexico and Peru, Chávez remained uncharacteristically silent during Correa’s campaign. That is, until Chávez pursued his own onslaught against the rightist Noboa. “There are also strange things going on [in Ecuador],” asserted the Venezuelan leader. “A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn’t pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first electoral round.” Such back-and-forth criticism continued until Noboa was stunningly defeated in the second round, losing to Correa by 57.07 percent to 42.96 percent of the total number of votes.
Ecuador Refuses ALBA In June 2008, Correa announced that Ecuador would not join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a “socially-oriented” regional trade bloc. The basis of this coalition stands in stark contrast to its U.S.-backed counterpart, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which, according to Teresa Arreaza of Venezuelanalysis, is “based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization.”
A report by aporrea.org stated that Ecuador decided instead to pursue its integration efforts by means of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). According to telegrafo.com, in the same year that Ecuador decided not to join ALBA, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) promised a credit line of $150 million to Quito, guaranteeing Correa’s decision to be ultimately dependent on U.S. funding. An agreement to join ALBA would have almost certainly jeopardized the allocation of such transactions. To this day, Correa maintains that Ecuador will become a member of ALBA only after Venezuela rejoins the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), making it likely that Ecuador’s refusal to join ALBA was a coercive strategy to have Venezuela induced to rejoin CAN. Chávez refused to have Venezuela remain a CAN member, which he meant as a snub to Washington for the Bush administration’s anti-Venezuela policies and its free trade agreements (FTAs) brokered with both Peru and Colombia.
The new constitution, aimed at alleviating the plight of Ecuador’s poor, who make up 38 percent of the nation’s total population, attracted overwhelming support as a result of proposed social programs that guaranteed free education and additional spending on health care. Programs aimed at increasing development and economic growth included the distribution of free seeds for crops, micro-loans with relatively low interest rates, and building materials for new home owners. Among its 444 articles, the new constitution also included increased governmental control over monetary policy, handing over control to Correa rather than the Central Bank. State control was also increased when it came to oil policy, which was a significant position to take, due to the fact that 45 percent of Ecuador’s annual budget comes from oil revenues.
Correa had stated that he would resign if the constitutional referendum was not passed, but its sweeping victory will allow him to potentially remain in power until 2017. The tighter grip on the economy, as well as the reduced power of the legislative and judicial branches, is consonant with trends prevalent throughout the belt of left-leaning Andean nations. However, Correa claims that his newly acquired power will help him consolidate the citizen’s revolution. The fear that Correa was changing the constitution in order to stay in power indefinitely was modulated by the inclusion of a clause that allows Congress to censure and impeach the president, given that it had sufficient public support behind it. Nevertheless, the new constitution allocates more power to Correa while concurrently weakening Congress, thus making it harder for Ecuadorians to oust him if they become disillusioned by his leadership.
The referendum’s passage was yet another vital blow against the United States’ once tight hold on the region. Today, Ecuador remains part of the group of Latin American nations to have fallen under the current “domino effect” that is characterized by the election of populist, leftist leaders, like Correa, throughout South and part of Central America. However, Correa’s Ecuador remains unique among left-leaning South American nations because, unlike the nationalization strategies being pursued by Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Correa has not moved to nationalize the telecommunications or electricity industry. Despite the fact that he has attempted to renegotiate mining contracts, the mining industry has not been nationalized. Nevertheless, Washington is known to feel it still has some cause for concern. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, met with Correa in 2008 to discuss Russia’s willingness to aid Ecuador in nuclear energy projects, potentially claiming another Moscow ally that is too close for the State Department’s comfort. And, as if meeting with an increasingly anti-American Russia is not enough, Correa has pledged to kill free trade talks with the United States, while simultaneously furthering bilateral agreements with Venezuela. Moreover, Correa’s aim to detach Ecuador from American connections includes the freezing of his country’s foreign debt payments and statements that the dollar should be abandoned as the official currency of Ecuador.
The El Salvador Connection
The loss of a key pro-Washington government in Latin America has made the Ecuadorian election that much more important. The current fight for the presidency in Ecuador will be examined closely, as a Noboa victory will give the United States a much needed pro- American figure in power in the region. Correa, having stated that he will not renew the lease on Manta Air Base — the only such U.S. outpost in South America — differs greatly from Noboa, whose platform includes an emphasis on orthodox private sector planning, including attracting foreign investment and building up tourism.
Border Dispute with ColombiaCorrea’s disapproval of any form of U.S. intervention in the region was further acknowledged when he claimed that Colombia had breached its borders in complicity with the United States. On March 1, 2008, Raúl Reyes, a rebel leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was killed by the Colombian military after it made an incursion on Ecuadorian territory.
Colombia had erroneously claimed they killed the rebel leader as the result of an air strike launched from within its own territory and that it was, in fact, an act of self defense on Bogotá’s part. Colombian soldiers then, according to this doctored version, crossed into Ecuador in order to confirm Raúl Reyes’ death. Correa, heatedly criticizing President Álvaro Uribe’s breach of Ecuadorian sovereignty, claimed that the fighting in fact took place within Ecuadorian territory and that the Colombian president had violated Ecuador’s autonomy due to pressure from the United States. The angered leader was then joined by Chávez, who stated that if the same situation had occurred in Venezuela, it undoubtedly would have been understood as an act of war. Uribe fired back by producing evidence that allegedly linked Chávez and Correa to the FARC.
According to “evidence” found on a laptop computer belonging to the late Raúl Reyes, Chávez had paid the FARC $300 million in exchange for the release of hostages that they held. The laptop also included information alleging that Correa received campaign contributions from the Colombian guerrilla group during his 2006 presidential campaign.
In a call for the OAS to act against Venezuela and Ecuador during the border dispute, Uribe stated, “Members of the Permanent Council and citizens of the hemisphere, let there be no doubt that the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela were negotiating with narco-terrorists, the proofs are in your hands.” Maria Isabel Salvador, Ecuador’s representative to the OAS attempted to refute the claims, calling Uribe’s evidence “alleged proofs,” pointing out that the computer recovered was “strangely intact” after a bombing attack that killed the FARC leader and others.
The allegations brought forth over the border incident, which Correa dismisses as a joke, could become a major decision factor for undecided Ecuadorian voters. Although Colombia violated Ecuadorian sovereignty by sending troops across the Colombian-Ecuadorian border to allegedly recover Reyes’ body, their allegations that Ecuador was in league with the FARC proposes a new obstacle in Correa’s fight to shed his popular label as being Chávez’ puppet. Latin News reports that despite having been in power since 2006, a Cedatos Poll, taken before the official campaign began, found that 44 percent of Ecuadorians were still undecided, and even Chávez’ silence in this election may not spare Correa from being somehow linked to the Venezuelan leader.
The border dispute had severe implications on Andean integration and cooperation efforts. In a hearing prepared by the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the dispute was said to have had lasting, negative consequences, breaking down the cooperation between South American countries in combating guerrilla groups, such as the FARC, and containing the drug problem. The House Subcommittee also reported that there would be an escalation in the militarization of border regions. In May 2008, two months after the border conflict had broken down, Ecuador announced its purchase of three Russian helicopters, which among other military type purchases from Brazil and Chile, would help reinforce the border with Colombia. Correa, if elected, will follow through with additional steps to secure the border. On March 24, 2009, General Fabián Varela, Ecuador’s Chief of the Joint Commander of the Armed Forces, stated that the aforementioned Manta Air Base, an important U.S. military site in the drug war, will be used as a center for its operations pertaining to the Colombian border when the U.S. lease expires in November 2009.
According to his campaign website, Noboa is running on a strong anti-corruption platform and has a professed interest in foreign investment. He currently has only 15 percent of the vote, having fallen to third place behind Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), an April 6, 2009 final opinion poll found. It is unlikely that Noboa will gain much ground before the April 26 vote. Noboa’s U.S.-like vision of Ecuador seems to be losing to Correa’s promise of autonomy and social welfare, awarding the current Ecuadorian president 57 percent of the vote. Already, it seems Correa is set for a clean and decisive victory as he is ahead by 10 percent over his nearest opponent, and above the 40 percent mark needed to win the election in the first round. Correa’s victory now seems eminent, but news that Noboa’s Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional and Gutierrez’ Sociedad Patriótica are carrying on talks of possibly forming an electoral alliance in order to win a majority of seats in Congress could effectively handicap Correa’s presidential prerogatives.